Tracy McGrady has a basketball resume that would be the envy of about 99.5 percent of 21st century NBA players. He’s made six All-Star games and seven All-NBA teams (two first teams), he’s finished top 10 in MVP voting six times and he’s won the scoring title twice. He’s even posted a PER over 30 for a season, if you’re into that sort of thing, which is something only six other players have ever done, all present-or-future Hall of Famers whose names you know pretty well. He dragged Orlando to the playoffs three straight years when his primary support largely consisted of Mike Miller and Darrell Armstrong, and he was part of the Rockets team that won 22 straight regular season games back in ’08. For a minute there in the early ’00s, Kobe or T-Mac was an argument, arguably. He’s done some things in this league.
What he hasn’t done, obviously and infamously, is win in the playoffs. As numerous as Tracy McGrady’s incredible statistical accomplishments have been, the stat that has most defined him for his career is probably zero, the number of playoff series he’d won to date as an active player before this postseason. The excuses for T-Mac’s lack of playoff success are there, and they’re not negligible — his two primary running mates over the years (Grant Hill in Orlando, Yao Ming in Houston) were constantly injured, and Tracy was rarely the picture of health himself, especially toward the end of his career. Often times the supporting cast that T-Mac took the court with was one that had no business being in the playoffs in the first place, and not once during his six seasons making the playoffs in Orlando or Houston was he on the higher-seeded team in the first round.
As reasonable as these excuses may be, it still hasn’t absolved McGrady in the eyes of many, as players of the strata he occupied in the early to mid ’00s — the Kobes, Duncans, AIs and KGs — are expected, somewhat unfairly, to be able to win in the playoffs, almost regardless of how crappy the rest of their teams may be. The true greats find a way to win when the games matter most. But the fact that Tracy wasn’t even once able to do that is seen as a serious blemish on his basketball resume, which when combined with his relatively brief hoops peak and ugly falling out with a couple of his old teams, has even made his Hall of Fame case a controversial one, despite possibly being one of the 10 best regular season players so far this century.
That’s what’s made this postseason such a weird one for Tracy McGrady. After being out of the league for pretty much the entirety of the regular season, with his eventual return to the NBA far from a certainty, T-Mac was snatched up by Gregg Popovich and the Spurs in mid-April and stashed on their postseason roster, presumably taking the place of veteran forward Stephen Jackson, who was waived just a few days before the Spurs announced their signing of McGrady and deemed more of a detriment to the team than an asset after he’d started complaining about his lack of burn. Now, McGrady has not only crossed the “zero playoff wins” off his resume with San Antonio’s victories over the Lakers and Warriors, but with the Spurs’ sweep over the Grizzlies in the conference finals, he’s four wins away from adding a much more prestigious line item: NBA Champion.
Sounds great, but it doesn’t quite feel right. I had hoped — as had many other hoops fans, I’d think — that even though McGrady would obviously not be a centerpiece of the 2013 Spurs as he was on the playoff teams of his prime, that he’d at least have a role like Captain Jack had in the Spurs’ previous playoff run, playing 15-20 minutes a game as the team’s backup forward, stretching the floor, adding a secondary playmaker and matching up with certain wing players on defense. He wouldn’t be the most important player, or even the seventh-most, but he’d be a real contributor, and maybe he’d have one game where he hit three or four threes and played solid defense on Kevin Durant or Jamal Crawford. It’d be a nice story, certainly, almost regardless of its outcome.
But instead, Tracy has been used as a garbage-time reserve only, playing just 17 minutes all postseason thus far, with not a second of those 17 minutes coming during a game whose outcome had yet to already be decided. His play during that limited stretch has been sporadically inspired, but basically replacement-level — in fact, he’s yet to score a single point for the Spurs, going 0-4 from the field with two assists and two turnovers. He’s not Stephen Jackson for this team, he’s early-season Rasheed Wallace, a familiar face whose entrance makes the fans go crazy, not just because of all the fun hoops memories they have of him, but because his presence in the game means that things have probably been pretty well iced for the home team.
I’ve struggled some with this during the Spurs’ postseason run, because as much as I liked Tracy McGrady and have wished him his belated postseason success over the years, it feels pretty dissonant to me for that success to finally come on a team where he hasn’t really contributed to any of the winning. Who knows how much of a help he’s been in the locker room or on the practice court — though you’d think if there was one team not in need of further veteran experience and locker-room presence, it’d be San Antonio — but in the actual games, it’s hard to say that he’s actually doing anything to help. In fact, you could make a strong case that McGrady deserves more credit for the Rockets’ first round series win when he was injured on the bench in 2009, since at least in that year, his above-average (though diminished by his standards) play for 35 games during the regular season arguably helped the team get to the playoffs.
As a fan of his, I can’t help feel a little disappointed that McGrady’s playoff 0-fer has ended this way. Failing to get out of the first round of the playoffs in his eight previous attempts isn’t much of a postseason legacy to have, but at least it’s a consistent one, and one that’s oddly poetic in its own messed-up way. (The chapter on T-Mac in the first FreeDarko book was always my favorite. The blog may as well have been created to wax poetic about McGrady’s particular tragedy.) For this post-script to McGrady’s career, in which he could win a championship for a team that he might not play 25 minutes for all year (and may never score a single basket for), to mess with that … it seems to me like it’s almost doing a disservice to McGrady’s career, like it’s not giving the trials and tribulations he went through in those eight first round losses their proper respect.
That said, it’s probably not too likely that the Spurs’ championship run will actually change much about how McGrady’s ultimate basketball legacy is viewed. The fetishizing of championship rings among hoops heads has resulted in veterans like Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and Michael Finley changing their career narratives by winning titles while serving more as role players than the stars they were in their prime, but that only stretches so far. Nobody really brings up the title Mitch Richmond technically won with the Lakers in 2002 when discussing his Hall of Fame chances, since he only played four minutes in the whole postseason. In the end, all the asterisk of winning a title really may do for McGrady is save him from appearing on some mildly embarrassing TNT list graphics.
And for his part, McGrady certainly doesn’t seem concerned about any kind of paradoxical taint to his career by him winning big with the Spurs. By just about all accounts, he’s been totally pumped about the Spurs’ playoff success, tweeting pics of himself in his Best of the West shirt, and embracing Tim Duncan in GIF-immortalized form upon San Antonio’s conference win. What’s more, he seems OK with the severely limited role he finds himself in on this Spurs team, amused by his ‘Sheed-like fan reception, and getting himself back in shape in case an injury or matchup concern necessitates him taking on a larger on-court role at any point. Perhaps this one quote of T-Mac’s from a recent article on him from the San Antonio Express-News says it all:
“This is a promotion for me,” he said. “For so many years, I tried to compete and take a team out of the first round. It just didn’t happen. Now it’s possible I can be a champion before I leave this game. Even though it won’t be the type of role I would like, I will still be a part of something.”